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Former CIA Head: Greatest Force For Instability In World Is U.S.


On a stage here in Washington last month, four former chiefs of the CIA settled into armchairs. They'd gotten together for a panel, part of a big conference on intelligence. And the moderator, Sue Gordon, who is herself a top official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, posed this question to the four spy chiefs.


SUSAN GORDON: What do you see the greatest threat or issue that is facing the nation today, from a security perspective?

KELLY: Now, a predictable answer might have been North Korea, Russia, maybe terrorism. But Mike Hayden, who ran the CIA from 2006 to 2009, offered this.


MICHAEL HAYDEN: I'm going to be very candid, Sue, with regard to what it is I would worry about now - us, OK - not CIA us, the United States us.

KELLY: I read about that exchange on the blog Lawfare, and my curiosity was piqued. So we tracked Hayden down. General Hayden, welcome back to the show.

HAYDEN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: The U.S. is the greatest threat out there today - really, the United States?

HAYDEN: Yeah. And I was careful with my words. Right after that excerpt you just played, I pointed out, look; we're not getting ready to cross any borders or to invade anyone. I don't mean a threat like that. I mean the greatest force for instability in the world today is the United States because so many nations look to us because of who we are at this point in history. We have played a certain role for about 75 years. And now no one, including me, knows whether or not we are willing to play that role going forward.

KELLY: And I should mention you served decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

HAYDEN: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: You see the U.S. charting a radically different path in the world today than in your decades past of service.

HAYDEN: What I see right now, Mary Louise, is the United States not charting a path. We've got a president who ran on America first, which has legitimate strains in American history, kind of Jacksonian. He's got a cabinet within his power ministries largely made up of American traditional internationalists whose - when they testify don't sound at all like the president. And the rest of the world and me are looking at our government wondering where we are going.

KELLY: Now, you have been critical of Trump. You signed that letter back in March of last year during the presidential primary campaign urging people not to vote for Trump. You described his proposed foreign policy as wildly inconsistent, unmoored in principle. So I have to ask. Is this a little bit you saying I told you so?

HAYDEN: Well, I mean, I don't want to say I told you so. But what I did say during the campaign - I simply said, if he governs in any way consistent with the language he has used as a candidate, I would be very concerned.

KELLY: All that said, this is Trump delivering on what he said he would do. He said he was going to come in and disrupt things. And he was elected president of the United States. The point being...


KELLY: ...Americans knew what we were signing up for.

HAYDEN: Well, that's why I (laughter) pointed out during the campaign that Americans ought to listen to what he was saying because there was a chance he was going to act on what it was he was proposing. And so he did. He promised to create a Muslim ban when he was a candidate. And he kind of sandpapered the rough edges off of that in the first week of the administration and had an immigration ban and a ban on refugees. My professional judgment, Mary Louise, was not only that wasn't necessary. It actually made us less safe. Now, I got it. It's consistent with what he said. I just don't think it's a good idea.

KELLY: Anything you like about the Trump foreign policy?

HAYDEN: The Obama administration I think could be fairly criticized for being indecisive, for being late and light in their response.

KELLY: Where - are you talking about Syria?

HAYDEN: Syria is the perfect example, all right? But I would add our response to a whole bunch of Russian activity again showed hesitancy that I don't think served us well. Now, you can make the case that the Trump administration in some instances is overcompensating, as perhaps the Obama administration overcompensated for what they believed to be the faults of the Bush administration.

KELLY: Do you see any other country, force, person that will step into the traditional U.S. leadership role?

HAYDEN: Well, you've got Angela Merkel in Europe stepping up. And frankly, Xi Jinping at Davos last February gave the speech that should have been written for the American president. He gave the speech that talked about globalization being win-win if we but manage it correctly - no words about China first.

KELLY: That's kind of something to hear somebody who once ran the Central Intelligence Agency talk about the president of China filling the U.S. leadership role on the world stage.

HAYDEN: Well, that's usually our speech. But he gave it.

KELLY: Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency - General Hayden, thank you.

HAYDEN: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.